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Filling in the Gaps

By Lindsey Bannister

November 10, 2015

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post detailing the remarkable life of Martha Craig.  Craig was an Irish-born poet, scientist, and explorer whose lectures provoked Canadian and American audiences.  Since then, Karyn Huenemann (Data Entry Supervisor for the Canada’s Early Women Writers project) and I have discovered more information about this unusual figure: around 1907, Craig abandoned her North American lecture circuit and travelled to Europe. After attending the Sorbonne, she became one of the first women to lecture at the University of Salamanca, until her academic career was cut short by the First World War. Craig returned to France to serve as a nurse. After the war, the shell-shocked writer travelled back to her family home in North Ireland, where she lived in relative peace and stability until her death in 1950.

We must thank Craig’s great niece, Anne Milliken, and Nevin Taggart, of the North Antrim Local Interest List, for clarifying some of the murkier details of her life story.  Without Anne and Nevin’s help we would not have discovered that the poet was also a pioneer in aeronautical engineering, who, according to a signed declaration dated 1914, worked to improve the design of dirigibles (as the document suggests, these improvements were of potential interest to the British Government—whether or not the British military used these designs is yet to be determined).      

Connecting with the public

Because the Canada’s Early Women Writers project (CEWW) illuminates the forgotten histories of non-canonical writers, research assistants rely upon information from local historians, genealogists, and family members in order to fill in the gaps.  In short, CEWW’s activities extend beyond our substantial database and into the broader public.  We connect with the public in the following ways:

  • We maintain a WordPress blog that lists the writers already included in our project.  We use this blog in order to ask for information about writers and their texts.  For instance, our blog contains lists of pseudonymous writers who might identify as women—and are therefore appropriate for our project—as well as anonymous texts. 
  • We post poems and reviews to our site regularly in order to maintain an online presence.
  • We are active members in the Ancestry.ca online community, building family trees, which may be accessed by living relatives of our writers as well as descendants.  One of our RAs, Linnea Regnier, is especially involved in this activity.
  • We write articles for the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory site, which is accessed by academics as well as members of the general public.

Sharing our research

Our digital presence has helped us to connect with a number of family members and in many cases we have also helped relatives learn more about their ancestor’s literary work.  Sometimes we are able to get in contact with the author herself.  Here are a few examples:

  • Emily Beavan:  Lyn Nunn, of Australia, a descendent of Emily Beavan, contacted Linnea and together they pieced together her life story.  Lyn had a number of scanned images from Beavan’s personal scrapbook, including a seemingly indecipherable acrostic hand-written by the author.  Karyn posted the acrostic on our blog, and between Lyn, her friend Chris, and other contributors, they eventually managed to transcribe the poem successfully—or at least to the satisfaction of all.
  • R. H. Grenville:  Karyn was drawn to this writer’s poetry, but because her only published collection, Fountain in the Square (1963), is not widely known, she had little information about this writer, including her gender.  Googling her name, she came across a comment on another blog, answering her question: her daughter, Cathy Rowley, posted that yes, “RH” was a woman: “She was my mother! So There!” 
    • Karyn contacted Cathy, and they met in Toronto.  As it turns out, this author—Beatrice Rowley—is still alive and has recently moved to a rest home in Victoria, BC. Beatrice’s step-son, Charles Rowley, has also been in touch, providing us with a signed copy of Fountain in the Square, along with a collection of photographs of his stepmother, copies of her poetry, and of her artwork.  Through Charles, we gained Beatrice’s permission to post some of her works on our blog, including a number of poems never before published.
  • Amy Clare Giffen: Ashley Armsworthy and her partner found a name etched in the kitchen window of their newly purchased home.  The name, carved in a childish hand, belonged to this author.   Intrigued by this mysterious signature, and a box of writing and ephemera found in the attic, they stumbled upon our website during their online research.  Together we were able to scrape together some details about Amy Clare Giffen’s life story, although there are still considerable holes in her biography.
  • Jane Layhew: Dr. Coral Ann Howells from the University of Reading, UK, wrote to CEWW for help determining the relationship of Jane Layhew, a nurse from Prince George, to a Jane Layhew of Montreal, author of Rx for Murder.  This exchange of information created a rich understanding of the life of this writer, who (it turns out) was married to Northrop Frye’s cousin Lew Layhew.

Digital scholarship fosters valuable connections between communities; these collaborations are essential for our recuperative work.  At CEWW, we are always on the look-out for new discoveries.

Canada’s Early Women Writers (CEWW) aims to construct a biographical database of Canadian women writers (or women writers associated with Canada) working before 1950.  The database is a seed project of the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory, run out of the University of Alberta, and headed by Dr. Susan Brown.  

Thank you to Karyn Huenemann for letting me adapt her notes into portions of this blog post.

Lindsey Bannister is a third year PhD student who specializes in gender and early twentieth century Canadian writing.  Through her work as a Research Assistant with the Canada's Early Women Writers project, she has discovered many of the strange and wonderful facets of Canadian literary culture.